High-speed USB is in the pipeline

At its developer conference in Palm Springs, Intel has announced it is working with industry partners to develop a new USB (Universal Serial Bus) specification that eventually should allow users to connect new, higher speed peripherals to their PCs.

USB is a standard connection technology that allows users to plug peripherals like keyboards, digital cameras and printers into their desktop and notebook PCs. One of USB's advantages is that users don't have to reboot their system each time they attach a new device.

USB 2.0 will operate at between 120Mbps and 240Mbps -- or 10 to 20 times the speed of the current USB -- allowing users to connect things like high resolution video conferencing cameras and fast storage drives, according to Pat Gelsinger, vice president and general manager of Intel's Desktop Products Group.

The working group developing the specification hopes to complete a preliminary version of the technology by September this year, with USB 2.0 systems and peripherals available by the end of 2000, Gelsinger said.

"We will rev to USB 2.0 as fast as possible," he said.

In a statement Intel said it expects USB 2.0 to exist alongside another I/O (input/output) technology, IEEE1394, which has been embraced by the consumer electronics industry as the preferred technology for linking equipment like camcorders, digital TVs and digital VCRs.

Besides Intel, development of USB 2.0 is being led by Compaq, Microsoft, NEC, Hewlett-Packard, Lucent Technologies and Philips Electronics.

USB 2.0 is one of a handful of so-called "platform initiatives" that Intel is pushing here this week. With the company's processors expected to reach at least 600MHz by the end of the year, Intel must ensure other parts of the PC system don't create a technology bottleneck that could dampen demand for the faster chips.

In marketing parlance, the initiatives are also aimed at improving the "speed, security, simplicity and style" of personal computers, Gelsinger said.

To give system manufacturers the flexibility to experiment with slimmer and more easy-to-use PC designs, Intel introduced a compact new motherboard called the FlexATX. FlexATX is around 25 per cent smaller than Intel's previous small form-factor motherboard, the microATX, according to a company statement.

Other platform efforts include increasing front-side bus performance in its fastest chips by about a third, to 133MHz, by the end of the year, Gelsinger said. The bus speed determines in part how quickly the processor can communicate with other components in a PC.

Intel also plans to improve graphics performance with introduction of the AGP 4X chipset, and increase memory bandwidth by adding support for Direct RDRAM.

In a "PC Fashion Show" here, several manufacturers and design firms showed off colourful concept desktop PCs that incorporated many of the new technologies. They aren't intended for sale but to show that "not all computers have to be beige," Gelsinger said.

For servers, meanwhile, the chip maker announced the availability of the L440GX+ server board, which Intel says offers up to three times more PCI bandwidth than other dual-processor boards and will help computer resellers offer better network performance for customers.

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